Brief Commentaries on St. John’s Chapter Six, Part One: The Feeding of the 5,000 (6: 1 – 15)Posted: April 30, 2018
As an introduction, the entirety of the sixth chapter of St. John’s gospel is to be taken as a whole. It is not to be fragmented into isolated parts that have no connection with one another. This can be stated because an inclusio holds the chapter together: the Greek phrase meta tauta (“after these things”) begins the chapter, and the same phrase begins chapter seven of this gospel. This phrase brackets the chapter together. Taken all as one, St. John’s sixth chapter is his teaching about the Eucharist.
The first event recorded by St. John in the sixth chapter is the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand as recorded in verses 1 —15. This miracle is recorded in all four gospels. However, St. John interprets it, and presents it, differently than the accounts found in the three synoptic gospels. He sees this miracle as a New Testament type of the Eucharist.
The first unique feature is found in John 6: 4: “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near”. It is interesting to note that St. John does not give an account of the Last Supper (the Institution of the Eucharist), which one would expect to find in the thirteenth chapter of his gospel. Hence, it can be concluded that with this verse he gives a clue to his readers that they are to begin to think of the Feeding of the Five Thousand as his interpretation of the Last Supper — Jesus’ celebration of the Passover with his disciples in the Upper Room. As a link, we find this in St. Mark’s gospel account of that Passover: “And it was the first day of the [Feast] of the Unleavened [Bread], when the Passover was sacrificed, and his disciples were saying, ‘After we leave, where do you wish us to prepare [a room] that you might eat the Passover’”? (Mark 14: 12). With all of these verses coupled together, our attention is turned to the Last Supper and the Eucharist.
Secondly, St. John records Jesus’ actions in his account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in a manner that also is intended to turn his readers’ minds to the Last Supper. First, I compare St. John’s words with St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper. Then I will demonstrate the contrasting actions in St. Mark’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.
John 6:11 (Feeding of the 5,000). “Therefore, Jesus took the bread, and after he gave thanks (eucharistesas) he distributed (diedoken) it to those reclining to eat, and likewise the fish — as much as they wished.”
Mark 14: 22 – 23 (Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper). “And while they were eating, after he took bread and blessed it, he broke it and gave (edoken) it to them and said, ‘Take. This is my Body.’ And taking the Cup, and after he gave thanks (eucharistesas) he gave (edoken) it to them, and they all drank from it.”
Mark 6:41 (Feeding of the 5,000). “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven. He blessed them and broke the loaves, and he gave them to the disciples in order that they might place [the loaves bread] before them, and the two fish he divided for all.”
Take note that in St. John’s account of the Feeding of the 5,000, Jesus’ actions correspond to his actions in the Upper Room: he gave the bread of the Passover to both the Apostle, and those who ate (the 5,000). In contrast, in St. Mark’s account of the Feeding of the 5,000 it is the disciples who give the bread to the crowd.
In this posting, the final contrast concerns the remaining fragments of bread following the feeding of the crowd — the “leftovers.” St. John 6: 12 – 13 reads,
Now, as they were filled, he says to his disciples, “Gather together the leftover pieces, so that they might not perish. Therefore, they gathered them together and filled twelve baskets filled with fragments of the barley loaves which were leftover by those who were fed.
This compares to St. Marks brief account: “And they (the disciples) took up twelve baskets full of pieces and of fish” (Mark 6:43).
Here, St. Mark simply comments on the miracle — not only were more than 5,000 fed, but that with so great a miracle there were leftovers. St. John, on the other hand, gives significance to the leftover pieces of bread. He has the disciples gather up the pieces into twelve baskets that they would be preserved. The twelve baskets of leftover miraculous bread belong to the twelve apostles. Jesus’ gives the leftovers to them to remain in their care. They were given into their care to feed even more with the miraculous bread which is his Body. By them, and the bishops who follow in their authority over the centuries, this miracle is perpetuated in the Eucharist!